Not a review of 2013


Because that would be boring and predictable. And everyone else is doing that.

My habit at this time of year is to ask myself where I was 12 months previously, where I am at the time of writing/blogging, and where I want to be in 12 months time. Hence this blogpost a year ago. Personally I find it useful because it helps set a direction for me as well as providing some threads into what can sometimes feel like a very random existence.

Hitting the lows – some very real lows

The difference between the lows I’ve been hitting over the past year, and previous ones (say in 2006) was that in previous years I’ve had fairly clear ideas/visions of where I wanted to get to. In the mid-1990s with my GCSEs I had a clear goal of getting into a new sixth form college, in the late 1990s it was university, in 2006 it was leaving Cambridge (again) and transferring down to London with the civil service. Although I never got anywhere near my potential in each of those three cases, I look back through rose-tinted glasses knowing that I still had that determination to succeed because those dreams were there. One of life’s hardest lessons for me is what you do when you succeed and/or realise your dreams. Snatching nightmares from the jaws of success? That’s me.

When faced with setbacks, in those days my attitude was “Ha! Is that the best you can do?!?!” towards said setbacks in the way a cartoon superhero retorts to his nemesis when kicked to the ground in a fight.

But it’s not like that this time

It’s as if all things personal, local, national and global have lined up to kick sand not just in my face but everyone else’s. I have my own personal issues – health in particular. I’ve blogged lots about issues local to me in Cambridge. You don’t need me to tell you about problems at a national or global level. After a while it all becomes…overwhelming.

Yet I can’t give up – we can’t give up

This bit is the ‘where and how do you challenge that anger and energy?’ question. Throughout 2013, two things became clear to me:

  1. I cannot hope to achieve what I’d like to achieve alone
  2. To make any impact, I have to do things local to me

This is something that Professor Alex Marsh picked up about my blogposts this year in his top-10 blogs of 2013 (see here). In particular, I’ve asked myself the question: How do I complement what I do on social media with what I do offline?

Burying my head into local actions and activities

None more so than my work as a school governor, which in the run up to our OfSted inspection took up increasing amounts of my time. Not that many people outside of school life notice just how much work goes into being a school governor. I sometimes ask myself whether politicians recognise this, in particular with recent policy reforms. My personal take is that ministers are assuming governing bodies have the wealth of skills and experiences that the board I am on happens to have, along with a vibrant and active Friends’ association of the school too. Those are very very strong assumptions. As I’ve mentioned before, political parties of all colours have decided to take schools out of local authority control in order to improve standards rather than dealing with issues of under-performing local authorities.

Being a local activist makes you harder to ignore

There are a handful of us in Cambridge that keep councillors on their toes – Richard Taylor and Phil Rodgers are the two most prolific. If you want to know if Cambridge will become a Labour run council in 2014, follow those two.

One of the things that perhaps has stood me out from the crowd (other than Puffles) is being active in the otherwise quiet south side of the river. Beyond the People’s Socialist Democratic Republic of Romsey (Historically this part of town has been called ‘Red Romsey’ for a reason) and the Abbey ward north of the airport, the south side of the city tends to be more quiet and has a lower profile than the central and northern parts. So how do you go about testing the waters of the community?

Puffles in listening mode

Throughout 2013 and in particular in the autumn, that’s basically the theme that unites much of what I have done: Turning up to lots of events, meetings and workshops and asking lots and lots of questions. To get a feel for just how many, have a look at the number and nature of blogposts I’ve tagged with the word ‘Cambridge’ (see here). One of the few councillors in Cambridge that can get anywhere near to blogging about events he or she has been to is Cllr Amanda Taylor (see her blogposts here). A written record of who does what written at the time? It’s all there – and something that local politicians are missing out on at their peril. Compare this to her neighbours in Coleridge (my ward) where the safe-as-houses Labour ward lacks both the social media presence and the vibrancy of community action that we see in other parts of Cambridge. At the time of blogging, the most recent updates on the Cambridge Coleridge Ward’s website (see here) and newsletters (see here) are from spring 2013. Cambridge Labour’s Facebook page (See here) as with the culture of the national party is still in broadcast mode, not in facilitating community conversation mode. That’s not to say the local party can’t do listening mode – they can and the proved it in early 2013 when three shadow ministers came to visit. (See my blogpost here). At that event – which I turned up to, I ended up facilitating discussions on housing policy as this was one of my former policy areas in my civil service days.

Yet for every positive community action event, you end up with what happened when the teaching unions turned up for a rally – see here. Talk about missed opportunities.

Joining up the dots

Throughout the autumn of 2013, I turned up to lots of events locally – again in listening and question-asking mode. As a result, I have been able to build up a picture of what South Cambridge looks like as a community. It has been an incredibly hard slog as well as being emotionally draining. There would be some nights where I would be going to three evening events on the same night. Whether council meetings, college open evenings, gatherings of local activists – basically the sort of thing where you wouldn’t normally go to unless you had a personal stake in the organisation or were passionate about the issue, I made the effort to go and listen. By December I was emotionally exhausted. Yet I learnt lots in the process.

2014 – the dragon fairy roars (Or (*buzzles wings*) very loudly)

From a local politics sense, this is one of the things Puffles is going to be doing more of – so Cambridge councillors be warned. When you do good stuff (such as when councillors of all parties came along to this event) Puffles will praise you. Not responding to questions that I and other members of the public have put to you in advance – such as here, and Puffles will give you a kicking. And not just on Twitter.

One of my aims for the 2014 elections is to help increase not just voter turnout but interaction between communities and our councillors – especially on my side of town. The reason being that all too often political parties stand ‘paper candidates’ and seldom engage. Me, Puffles and a handful of local (non-party-political) friends plan on changing all that. To be fair, we’ve had some positive responses from a handful of local councillors and party-political activists on a couple of things we want to run – including some community-based hustings and some organised online social-media-based debates.

The other stuff we have planned or in the melting pot? Much of it hasn’t really been tried before. That and/or is so completely out of this world that I’m not entirely sure local politicians would know what to make of it. But then with a politically-aware dragon fairy you can afford to be playful, anarchic, unpredictable and mischievous.

Anything else for 2014?

Difficult to say given the broader outlook. The civil service will continue with all things open and digital, while ministers & their shadow politicians will fail to deliver the same in terms of their political party structures. National politics will become even more poisonous in the run up to the European elections, and furthermore as the Coalition goes through its inevitable divorce proceedings beginning in the autumn. It’ll be interesting to see if UKIP can transfer success at the European elections into seats in local councils – similar to the shock to the system Cambridgeshire experienced in May. (See here). Also, will the Greens break out of London and the South East in the Euro-elections? They have their eyes on the South West, North West (which they missed narrowly last time) and East Anglia.

As for me?

Change/improvements will be slow and incremental. Given that much of 2014 will involve meeting with and connecting up lots of people, it’s difficult to know what impact this might have. My take is that you can’t predict who you are going to meet in life, let alone what impact those people will have on you.

My challenges for those of you reading this

For 2014, my challenges to you are:

1) What is the one action that you are going to undertake this year that you have not done before in your life?

2) What behaviour change will you make this year? What are you currently doing that you will stop doing or change, what are you currently not doing that you will start doing?

Happy New Year!



5 thoughts on “Not a review of 2013

  1. similarly, 2014 is going to be a very challenging year for me… in addition to a plan for Total Global Domination some of us in Leeds are working on (of which more when we’ve worked out exactly what it is…), I have to rescue my PhD from the jaws of failure while getting myself mentally and physically well enough to do so (not to mention the continuing challenge of wrestling with the DWP), and balance up some tricky transport and urban planning issues with local communities (particuarly where I live) at a Public Inquiry …but then there probably isn’t much point to life without a challenge or two (or three, or…)

    So, in answer to your questions:

    1) Turn around a failing PhD project *and* help produce a community-led vision for the future of Leeds
    2) Take the bull by the horns as regards my mental health in particular, to get me able to write and communicate in a meaningful way

    simples, yeah?

  2. Another good piece, as was “35 ideas”; thanks for the effort involved in writing that. While your observation that there’s a lack of social media presence from our councillors “south of the river” in Cambridge is certainly true, it’s not just social media. Most don’t seem to want to communicate in any way other than party newsletters through the letterbox; apart from Ms Taylor, only one I know even stretches as far as a one-way broadcast email. Neither method offers any realistic chance of feedback or dialogue. At the last county council election, only two of the candidates in Queen Edith’s put together even rudimentary information on the web; the others had no information about themselves online at all. When I wrote about the candidates on my unremarkable blog about local issues, it had an amazing number of visits, the majority coming from Google searches about the election and the candidates. People are interested. If there’s a local issue where residents feel they need to organise themselves because they can’t rely on councillors, the first thing they do is to create a website and mailing list, set up on Facebook and Twitter, etc., and guess what? It works, as the Worts Causeway and Cambridge Green Belt development protest demonstrated. Nobody can deny that the campaign mobilised support quickly and efficiently, even if in the end it was ignored by the majority of Liberal Democrat and Labour councillors. We’re moving towards the day when online communication will once again enable people who aren’t interested in party politics to have a realistic chance of election in local affairs, and I can’t wait. That’s the only upside I can see to the lack of initiative being shown by our current representatives.

  3. This comment interested me:

    “My personal take is that ministers are assuming governing bodies have the wealth of skills and experiences that the board I am on happens to have, along with a vibrant and active Friends’ association of the school too. ”

    I’m not sure ministers even really know what being on a Governing body entails, especially in the new world order of Academies/Free Schools.

    I’m also not convinced many MPs understand what Councillors do / how much influence they can, and can’t, have.

  4. @ChrisRand

    Whilst I agree it is terrible that many Councillors don’t communicate – don’t let the electorate off the hook. It isn’t good enough for people to say “I never hear from my councillor” if they’ve never tried contacting them.

    That said, I know from experience of people who have tried once, not got a response, then given up.

    Anyway, it’s a new year, so let’s think positively!

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